There is something about Vicky McClure’s personality – she is chatty, confident and as eye-contacty as an owl – that makes you think she is taller than she is. In fact, she is 5ft 4in. She is also quite bendy, as becomes apparent when she sits down to talk in a comfy booth and folds her legs into what looks like the lotus position. No, she doesn’t do yoga, the 35-year-old actress says, but in her teens, she did want to be a dancer. She had her heart set on it and even had an audition for the Royal Ballet School. “Didn’t get in,” she says, a trace of Nottingham in her vowels. “Wasn’t much good at school either. My concentration was very low. I was bored. Left at 16 without any GCSEs.”
She did, however, win a place at the prestigious Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in London, only to have to turn it down because there were no grants available and her parents – her father, Mick, is a joiner, her mother, Carol, a hairdresser who now works in an office – couldn’t afford the fees. She remained at the (free) Central Junior Television Workshop in Nottingham instead, where she had been going for five years and where she was coached by fellow Nottingham-born film and TV actress Samantha Morton.
If my success all ends tomorrow, I’d go out and get an office job
Then, aged 21, she landed a part in Shane Meadows’ acclaimed film This Is England. She played Lol, a single mother from a broken home, a role for which she won a Bafta when the film was turned into a TV miniseries. During the years she worked on it, off and on, she kept up her day job. “I didn’t have any private wealth to buy me time to move to London and hang around with the right people until some doors opened. I always had a job that wasn’t in acting, in Boots, Dorothy Perkins or whatever, to help me through the times when I didn’t have acting work.” One of her jobs was working in a surveyor’s office looking after the vending machines.
Nowadays TV viewers will know her best from Line of Duty, the BBC crime drama that has, like Bodyguard (also written and created by Jed Mercurio), become one of the BBC’s biggest ratings hits in years. The “overnight” figures for the first episode of the new series revealed a peak audience of eight million, the highest ratings this year.
McClure plays the unflappable DI Kate Fleming, who works for a police anti-corruption unit. The storylines, she says, are guarded closely. She won’t even tell her family. “But actually, a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Oh please don’t tell me, it will ruin it. I want to enjoy it in real time.’” So all that she will say to me is, “Do I make it to season six? Who knows.”
I ask her what she thinks is behind this national obsession with police dramas. “With Line of Duty I think it’s that viewers enjoy having to do some of the detective work. In an interrogation scene, say, they are looking at the body language for clues. ‘Why did the suspect just scratch her ear?’ We’re all detectives now.”
Despite her success with the show, McClure is whatever the opposite of starry is. Her favourite thing, she says, is being lazy at the weekends. “On Line of Duty you have to be disciplined, no late nights, learn your lines. But at the weekend I can sit around doing bugger all. Lie in bed all morning, then a fry-up and telly. I love television.”
This summer she takes the lead role in I Am Nicola, a portrayal of a woman mentally abused by her controlling partner. It is one of three dramas for Channel 4 written and directed by Dominic Savage (the others have Samantha Morton in I Am Kirsty and Gemma Chan in I Am Hanna) centring on the actress in the lead I Am … role.
Working-class parents can’t say, ‘Here’s 60 quid,’ if their kid needs to go to an audition
McClure prefers not to embrace metropolitan showbiz life in London, living in her home town of Nottingham instead with her fiancé, Jonny Owen, a director and actor 12 years her senior. She grew up on an estate there, went to Fernwood School in the city and now, such is her celebrity, she has a tram named after her. “People know I live in Nottingham, so if they see me down the shops they are not surprised. But yes, I do get recognised.”
The place has also left her with a keen sense of what she calls her working-class identity. She thinks that actors from privileged backgrounds have an unfair advantage. When, in a bid to wind her up a bit, I suggest that Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis, Dominic West, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch can’t help their backgrounds, that their privilege is not their fault and does not make them any less good as actors, it prompts the following passionate outpouring.
“Of course it’s not their fault, but I’m always going to be championing people who haven’t had that easier start, because I didn’t. I probably see the reality of life in this country differently to them. If you’re struggling, if you don’t have any money, it’s much harder than people think. I have friends who are millionaires. I have friends who are piss-poor. I know that at the end of the day you can’t help what you are born into, that it doesn’t make you less talented. Eddie Redmayne is an incredible actor and a lovely guy. But I just find it frustrating that if you haven’t got funds, you haven’t got the same opportunities. That’s what it comes down to.”
She draws breath and glances to the side before locking eyes once more. “If you are really talented, but don’t have the money, you won’t find your way through, whereas this other person who can act, who has money galore, can pay their way through it. All actors are fighting the same battles, but if you are born into money it is easier.”
Does she have any particular examples in mind? “I know too many talented people who have missed out on opportunities because train fares aren’t cheap. If you live in Manchester it could cost you 300 quid to get down to London for an audition. A casting can come up at very short notice. The next day. You don’t have months to save up your money or get a cheaper advanced ticket. Working-class parents can’t say, ‘Here is 60 quid,’ every time their kid needs to go up to London. Those are things you don’t have to think about if you come from a privileged background.”
All this makes her feel not so much politicised as disenfranchised. “The language of politics is predominantly posh and rich,” she says, “and I can’t see my people in it.”
Marriage? ‘No date yet, but we’re aiming for next year’
Not even when it is Comrade Corbyn doing the talking? “I don’t want to be drawn on my politics,” she says, with a firm nod and a brief pursing of her lips. “But I’m extremely passionate about the NHS. What are those who can’t afford private healthcare supposed to do? Just die? It makes me explode.”
Her equanimity soon returns when she talks about how, for some reason, she rarely if ever feels self-conscious in front of a camera. It probably helps that with her prominent cheekbones and expressive blue eyes, the camera seems to be her friend. “But I’m not a model; I’ll never be a model. It’s not something I would want to do, either. They ask you to get into these unnatural positions. Photographers will say things like, ‘Make your arms look soft.’” She demonstrates floppy arms, then shrugs and laughs.
She has just come from the photoshoot for this article. “I turned up this morning without a scrap of make-up on and the glam team came in and did my hair and make-up and dressed me in clothes I wouldn’t normally wear. But I suppose it is still me. Me with the help of a team of people.” She laughs again, a short bark. “Lighting is important. But to be honest, I’m just not bothered if people aren’t happy with the way I look. In This Is England I didn’t wear full-face make-up. Bit of eyeliner, that was all. Mother’s Day, I didn’t fill my eyebrows in. I plucked them to smithereens when I was a kid and they never grew back.”
It seems safe to conclude from this that she is comfortable in her skin. And she doesn’t seem to suffer, as some actors do, from the problems associated with not being able to switch a character off at the end of the acting day. But if, say, she has to tell someone on screen that she loves them, does that devalue the currency of saying it genuinely in her private life? “No, they don’t feel at all the same. On screen, I’m not thinking of Jonny, my fella, so that it comes out naturally. You pretend.”
There is a diamond engagement ring on her finger. “We haven’t set a date but we are aiming for next year. This year has been too chocka.”
Had she been in love before? “Yes, but it wasn’t the same – definitely not. Had a few relationships before I met Jonny, but there wasn’t that same Cupid’s-arrow moment as there was when I met him [on the set of the film Svengali, which he wrote]. He keeps me grounded. I feel like I have to set an example to his [grown-up] daughter. I don’t want to become known as being a bit of a dick.”
How has her success affected her other relationships, with her old school contemporaries, for example? “My old friends from Nottingham don’t treat me differently. Not a chance. Because I don’t live and breathe the industry. My best mate, Michelle, has just set up a business with my older sister, Jenny, making wax models. Another friend is working in energy and another one has become a nutritionist. None of my oldest and closest friends work in my business and they don’t want to hear about my work.”
I bet they do. “OK, yes,” she concedes with a laugh. “When I first started appearing in the papers or on chat shows it was a big deal, but now everyone is relaxed about it.”
What about when Madonna cast her in her directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom, in 2008? The laugh again. “Yes, they wanted to know about that. I went to Madonna’s house and saw her with her children. And she flew me out on a private jet for a screening. To me it felt like a normal relationship between a director and an actor. I wasn’t watching out for, ‘Ooh, what’s Madonna doing now?’ I don’t remember feeling uneasy. Everyone is going to have good days and bad days, even Madonna.”
McClure admits to a lack of patience and a tendency to grind her teeth, but otherwise gives the impression of having a sunny disposition, so much so that it seems hard to imagine her having bad days. “Of course I have them. We all get down and have days when we feel like shit and just want to pull the duvet over our head and sign off for the day. I do sometimes suffer from anxiety – I’m a bit of a worrier, mainly about my friends, the people I love – but I’ve never had therapy.”
When I ask how she would describe herself, she says she thinks she has a pretty high level of emotional intelligence. “I can read people well. And I like to be in control. Like to be organised. I’m quite nosy.”
As anyone who saw her appearance on Top Gear will know, she also swears a lot. “Yes, I’ve got a right potty mouth, but I wouldn’t dream of swearing in front of my grandparents, even now.”
She’s also a bit of a cyberchondriac. “I’m always googling illnesses. Guilty of it.” I ask if, odd moments of health-related paranoia apart, she is, at this stage of her career, allowing herself to enjoy her success. “I think so. I’m not worried about it suddenly stopping because I don’t think that would bother me, because I’ve had so much rejection in the past and that’s the nature of the acting beast. As much as I love my job, if it all ends tomorrow, that’s not my life over. It’s not. It’s really not. I’d go out and get an office job.”
She hopes that if she has children in due course she can be the same way with them as her parents were with her. “Mine weren’t ‘you must live your dream’ parents, but they did think that if you find something you enjoy, you should keep going with it. I remember when I came back from school with the form for the Television Workshop, aged 11, my mum said, ‘Yeah, if you want to do it, Vicky, do it.’ I was dancing every night at the time – tap, modern, ballet – a gruelling schedule for my parents, making sure I had my ballet shoes and my hair in a bun. My sister and I were different. She never wanted to get into showbiz.” She does jazz hands as she adds, “I was the ‘watch me’ daughter.”
She says she and her sister, who is two years older than her, have never talked about how she seemed to need (and get) more of their parents’ attention. But they are close and have always been supportive of one another.
When I ask if she ever considered auditioning for one of those ubiquitous talent shows, she shakes her head. “Talent shows give people false hope and don’t prepare them for the rejection that is part of an actor’s life,” she says. “Contestants always say, ‘It’s my dream. It means the world to me and my life will be meaningless if I don’t win.’ I get that passion, but it’s not true that if you follow your dream you will get there, because there is not enough room on the telly, on stage and in film for everyone, and it’s not fair to let people think there is.”
This said, she is always willing to offer advice when aspiring actors ask her for it. One question that crops up is how an actor manages to cry on cue. She finds it helps to listen to music beforehand, the Carpenters being a sentimental favourite. “I play certain trigger music. Something powerful. An instant hit of emotion. If the director tries to rush the scene or they want take after take I sometimes say, ‘I’m not a robot.’ I’m not going to use a tear stick. It needs to be real and everyone needs to give me the time to get there. I’m not going to do it ten times in a row because then it gets away from the reality of whatever that scene is. For the rape scene in This Is England it was a closed set. It was sensitively handled.”
Her understanding of the power of music was heightened by her experience of watching her grandmother’s decline from dementia. “She wasn’t herself and she lost her ability to communicate, but if we sang songs there would be a smile.”
Her grandmother’s death had a big impact on her and was the reason she became involved with a choir made up of patients with dementia in Nottingham. She has made a documentary about it which is due to be screened next month.
“You just see these 20 people all singing in harmony, different ages and sexes,” she says. “At times, I couldn’t keep a lid on my emotions when I was with them. Dementia affects the protein in a certain part of your brain. And as your brain shuts down, this affects your body, your balance and so on. I’ve learned so much about it. There are different types, with vascular and Alzheimer’s being the most common. It is an epidemic and people assume it is always old people who are affected by it, but that’s not true. The youngest member of my dementia choir is Daniel, who is 31. His was genetic. He had a faulty gene.”
Since making the documentary a few months ago she has kept in touch with the choir. “I saw them all last week. They live locally in Nottingham. I went to one of their weddings. Dementia is tough. There is no cure. And it’s a difficult show to promote, if you know what I mean. Our Dementia Choir with Vicky McClure is not a glamorous title.” She laughs again, an explosive “ha!” “Still, hopefully we will get Bodyguard figures.”
We have been talking for more than an hour, long enough for me to have forgotten about our respective heights (I’m 6ft 2in). When we get to our feet she registers my expression of surprise about this and says with a laugh, “People always think I’m taller than I am. Ha!”